Data Over Good Feelings: Why Science Matters

In the new Aspen Review article, ‘Data Over Good Feelings: Why Science Matters,’ science journalist Pavla Hubálková deep dives into science communication to the public, offering examples of good practices and presenting research outcomes on why data and scientific knowledge are crucial for addressing many societal challenges. She emphasizes that they should be the primary arguments in our and policymakers’ decision-making.

When it comes to “science communication to the public”, what first comes to mind? Is it entertaining experiments and various curiosities, or something complex and boring that doesn’t interest you? Science is all around us and within us, and when communicated effectively, it can be useful and comprehensible. This is crucial because data and scientific knowledge offer solutions to many societal challenges and should be the primary arguments in our decision-making. When choosing a new phone or washing machine, you’ll probably look at what’s on offer, compare models, and choose one based on the data available. So why don’t we, as individuals or even as a society, use the same method more often? When making decisions about our health, the environment or the economy, we often don’t. Science has something to say about all of this – whatever the issue, the chances are that there are scientific studies about it. But the available data usually remains in laboratories or filed away in desk drawers. All too often, we make our decisions based on other factors, such as a gut feeling or public sentiment.

The Missing Bridge Between Science and Practice

We’re faced with decisions every day, from choosing to be vaccinated or figuring out our daily finances. It turns out that providing people with expert opinions or well-timed relevant information frequently leads to better decision-making. The research of Julia Chytilová and Michal Bauer, economists from CERGE-EI and Faculty of Social Sciences at Charles University, provides simple and practical solutions to many challenges facing societies today. In their study published last year in the prestigious journal Nature, they found that, during the pandemic, the public believed that only about half of doctors endorsed vaccines against covid-19. In reality, the figure was around ninety percent! “We showed that simply informing the public of experts’ consensus is a simple, inexpensive, and long-lasting way to increase willingness to be vaccinated," the authors explain.

People’s distrust of vaccines stemmed from the mistaken assumption that doctors themselves did not trust vaccines. This distortion was probably directly contributed to by the media, which, in their attempt to be objective, provided equal space to extreme opinions without emphasizing their frequency and the majority opinion of experts.

It is highly likely that better communication of expert opinions – clearly, in context and with an emphasis on factual information – would also help in other areas. “Scientists are often expected to not only provide knowledge but also its application. We try, but it is hard to find the capacity for it, and sometimes it requires a different set of skills than scientists typically”, says Bauer. According to him, it is important to support specialists who understand science and know how to effectively communicate findings to the general public, as well as politicians or representatives of organizations, to ensure their practical implementation.

Czech Science Journalists

How many science journalists do you know, and does your favorite media outlet have a separate science section?

Science communication does not have a strong tradition in the Czech Republic; there are no opportunities for formal education, and science as a topic does not have a permanent place in many newsrooms. Science, along with culture, is most often found in weekend supplements as a point of interest.

Yet, science should be present across all topics and sections. A prime example is the science editorial office at Czech Television, which has about fifteen members (some only part-time); they prepare roughly two hundred scientific topics for broadcasting each month and publish more than a hundred articles about science on their website. “Science is all around us, and our goal is to popularize it in various formats and lengths across the news,” says Daniel Stach, a popular TV host at Czech TV, who has become a symbol of cutting-edge science communication over the past decade.

The novelty of the field also relates to the term ‘science journalist’ – how do you recognize one, and what should they know? "In the Czech Republic, a science journalist is anyone who labels themselves as such," aptly summarizes Karolína Poliaková and Tereza Klabíková Rábová from the Faculty of Social Sciences at Charles University, who approach science communication scientifically. They are involved in the international research project Trust in Science and Science-Related Populism, led by researchers from Harvard and the University of Zurich. Thanks to Czech researchers, an international study mapping people’s trust in science in 65 countries will also include data from the Czech Republic. We will find out more next year.
During the summer, these aforementioned researchers also published the preliminary results of the very first study on science journalism in the Czech Republic. They use data to confirm the conclusions we all kind of suspect – that science is not a priority for the media and that there is a lack of specialized journalists. Yet these are key to successful science communication. Writing about science requires knowledge of the context and the specifics of how science works. It is essential to be able to distinguish high quality research from poor research, as well as to have the trust of scientists. In short, you have to have insight and know who to call.

The shortcomings of (not only) the Czech media have been fully exposed by the covid pandemic. It showed that some journalists do not know how to work with data, recognize relevant experts, or deal with uncertainty.

Perhaps for the first time in history, we watched the emergence of scientific knowledge literally live, and could witness the damage done by journalistic shortcuts that yearned for simple and unambiguous results.
In some cases, however, the covid pandemic paradoxically helped science communication. “We were able to react very quickly, we really made the most of the covid pandemic in terms of communication,” says Petr Cieslar, who is behind the success of the social media of the Czech Academy of Sciences. On 11 March 2020, the day when schools were first closed, they published the first video lecture from the Science at Home series. And they were surprised by its success! As a result, they conducted over fifty online streams and more than five hundred “Into-the-Classroom” sessions, where scientists enriched online education. They also prepared many quizzes, podcasts, instructions for home experiments, and other materials, bringing science into even more households across the Czech Republic. “But none of this would have been possible if I had not been at the Academy for two years and did not know its environment in detail,” emphasizes Cieslar.

We probably did not learn, however, as much about communication from the covid pandemic as we would like to think. “We entered the research with the idea that covid changed everything, and it meant a harvest for science journalism. But the journalists’ answers proved us wrong.

Due to the pandemic, the media was forced to focus on science, the same is happening now with the war in Ukraine – political scientists, sociologists, or international relations experts are getting a great deal of media space.

The same applies to the current hype in the field of artificial intelligence. “However, we continue to repeat some of the mistakes from the beginning of the pandemic, such as the inability to combat recurring myths or effectively debunk misinformation,” says Poliaková.

Being One Step Ahead

Where can we find inspiration? “We focus on controversial and complex topics that arouse passion or fear,” summarizes Fiona Fox, a media expert who founded the first Science Media Centre in the United Kingdom twenty years ago. Today, similar centers exist in Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan, Kenya and Spain. Their goal, however, is not to popularize science! “I often like to say that we don’t do dinosaurs and space, because that’s usually well covered in the media. We function more like independent press offices that strive to write about science in context – and as accurately as possible,” says Fox, emphasizing that speed is key. “If some breaking news appears in the morning, we have to react as quickly as possible; by the afternoon, it’s too late.” They therefore keep a close eye on current events and upcoming scientific publications. If they come across a topic with the potential to evoke emotions and make headlines, they reach out to experts from an internal database containing over three thousand contacts. Their responses are then provided to the media to report more accurately and contextually on news from the world of science.

What, according to their experience, is the best defense against disinformation? “Many people call for special campaigns targeted ‘against disinformation’. For me, however, the best strategy is to focus on the essence of our work—simply to communicate science effectively in every possible way: be on TV, in newspapers, and also on social media. Become a regular part of life. And let’s maintain optimism; even though many disinformation and fallacies spread during covid, science has won. In the UK, eighty percent of people have been vaccinated!” says Fiona Fox with hope.

“In the United Kingdom, science communication is very well developed, including within the Parliament and among politicians. The Royal Society organizes annual exchange programs for scientists and members of parliament, where politicians have the opportunity to experience the work of top scientists and vice versa. As a result of these experiences, understanding and mutual respect are much higher,” says Otakar Fojt, Scientific Attaché of the British Embassy.

The British Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST), for example, publishes regular informative research briefings called “POST Notes” on various scientific topics of interest to policymakers as well as the general public. POST also supports select committees with inquiries, organizes events about research for parliamentarians, provides training about using research and research methods, or participates in international collaborations and outreach activities. POST Notes also freely inspired the Czech Academy of Sciences to publish AVEXs.

Czech Efforts and Ambitions

Modern society is a very complex ‘organism’. The use of the latest scientific findings surprises no one when manufacturing cars, but we should approach lawmaking, compiling public budgets, issuing grant titles, designing social programs, and managing education in the same way. If we do all this based solely on general intuition, simplistic ideological precepts, personal impressions, and public opinion surveys, it’s almost certain that things won’t end well,” warns economist Daniel Münich, who with his colleagues regularly prepares various analyses within the think tank IDEA at CERGE-EI. “Interest in our analyses has been gradually increasing in society over the years. The smallest progress I see so far is on the side of the state, represented by politicians and government authorities. The analytical capacities of departments remain extremely weak, and the ability and interest to outsource necessary analyses are also not particularly impressive,” says Münich. According to him, “most of the political representation still believes that governing is best done politically, i.e., without any regard to data or impact assessments and the like. “Considering our limited personnel and financial resources, we primarily focus on topics such as taxes, the labor market, the social system, and aging. However, similar research would also be desperately needed in other areas like healthcare economics, energy economics, environmental economics, and the economics of industrial regulation,” Daniel Münich lists, who believes that societal pressure could be the driving force for changes. So, during the next decision-making, let’s ask yourself, your colleagues or policymakers what science knows about it and if you do not understand, ask for better explanations. Let’s make the science-based decision the new normal, it will help us.

Pavla Hubálková

Pavla Hubálková is a science journalist at Charles University. She also writes about science for Hospodářské noviny,, HROT,, Universitas and other media outlets. She shares the latest news about science on Twitter as @PavlaHub. She originally thought she would become a scientist. She studied clinical biochemistry at the University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague and completed her PhD in neuroscience at the Third Faculty of Medicine, Charles University. During her Fulbright internship at Northwestern University in Chicago, however, she discovered that she wanted to work in science communication. She also volunteers at Czexpats in Science – an organization that connects Czech scientists with international experience.

Last edited November 2023

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